Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Adam Hartzell: The Topp Twins

The above still comes from the formally-perfect Samurai Rebellion, one of the 35mm prints playing this week in a chambara film series at the VIZ Cinema. The VIZ will be showing five more classic Japanese films in 35mm prints in August, including one my friend Adam Hartzell's been bugging me to see for a while now, Nagisa Oshima's Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence.

I met Adam at a Yerba Buena Center for the Arts screening of an Abbas Kiarostami film several years ago, where we hit it off immediately. In addition to being a friend, since 2006 he's been the most frequent guest contributor to this blog, and though it's been a few months since he last offered a piece here, I'm thrilled that he's offered up a new contribution, bringing his unique perspective to one of last month's Frameline festival offerings. Take it away, Adam!

Lately, it has been hard for me to watch DVDs. In some ways, it has become a chore, something I must do to keep up with the films I want to be conversant in. When such a film is showing at a theatre near me, I don’t have this trouble because I long for the preferred experience/ of film in the cinema. I find watching a film in the cinema a more visceral experience. A film, as opposed to a DVD, is something I can visually imbibe because it is a more tactile medium. As if I'm feeling the light reflected from the screen on my eyes, on my entire body.

Along with the visceral is the communal nature of a film in the theatre. This is why I put off sleep to catch a couple Ozu films last week that were part of the series of three Japanese directors at the VIZ Cinema that Brian discussed in a past post. Watching Ozu on the screen rather than on the box is so much more pleasurable to me. And watching it with my wife and her friend (also named) Adam added to the experience. Plus, I noted some people whom I’d never seen at a VIZ screening before, sensing my film-going community expanding. This doesn’t mean they’d never made it out to VIZ before, but they seemed to be an instance of VIZ expanding its audience beyond what the young ones prefer, bringing out some older folk by screening some old school Japanese cinema along with the new.
In addition to the visceral and the tactile aspects of a cinema, watching film is as much about the space and the audience and the context in which it is watched as it is about the film, which is why I will receive regular detention slips from the school of film criticism that demands you only talk about the film. The theatre screen is not bounded by four sides for me any more than the cinema is bounded by four walls. The sides and the walls are permeable. Stuff seeps in to talk with the film as I watch. All these factors just don’t infiltrate my viewing experience as much when watching them on the TV via DVD.

No more was my preference for the cinema evident then the only screening I caught at this year’s Frameline Film Festival, The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls (Leanne Pooley, 2009). Before I get into who they are and what the film tells us about them, let me share how I came to hear about the Topp Twins. I am a big fan of the Radio New Zealand National radio host Kim Hill. A voice of a thousand cigarettes, she has a timbre and a frequency that I find calming, reassuring and familiar even though her country’s history and accent is not mine and she insists on pronouncing the word film as ’fil-lum’. My two trips to New Zealand have been sound-tracked by her questions towards the various personalities and thinkers who she brings on to her show. Because she speaks for New Zealand, she presumes an understanding of many of these individuals and the issues they discuss, a knowledge that I as a Yankee often don‘t possess when the topics are first introduced. Part of the pleasure in listening to Hill and her radio colleagues is trying to figure out what goes unsaid while listening.

Now, I can‘t recall confidently if I heard the Topp Twins themselves interviewed by Kim Hill, or if it was the director Leanne Pooley. (And outsourcing my recall to Google brings no verification through any links.) But I think it was the Topp Twins themselves. Regardless of the accuracy of my memory, my introduction to the importance to New Zealand of this lesbian twin yodeling comedy folk duo was thanks to Hill. And Hill spoke of the Topp Twins with such a reverence that I had to know more about the importance of these two women. And the significance of Pooley’s documentary to New Zealand cinema was validated by its inclusion in Hamish McDouall’s 100 Essential New Zealand Films, a book picked up for me on a colleague‘s recent visit to New Zealand. As McDouall differentiates the Top Twins’ humor from that of the Jackasses and The Offices, “This is not the comedy of cruelty but a heartwarming tribute to New Zealand and its odd and charming personalities...“ This was my build-up to The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls. I had to see this film. Thankfully, Frameline made that possible.

And Frameline’s audience was the perfect space in which to watch this movie. I came to this film wanting to know about these two women, while much of the audience at the Frameline Film Festival seemed to already know about the Topp Twins and were looking for an opportunity to laugh at what they knew would be hilarious and to show their applause-resounding, appreciation for what they already knew these women had accomplished. It was a perfect example of how the networks in which we are node-d might cause us to miss the significance of certain people and movements. Although I have made concerted efforts to school myself in Queer culture and movements around the world and have challenged my country’s provincialism by actually caring about the history and contemporary politics of other countries such as New Zealand, my self-education hadn’t found the Topp Twins’ place in my pedagogy until now.
The Topp Twins are a folk duo of country roots consisting of real life twins Jools and Lynda Topp who grew up on (and would return to) a farm in rural New Zealand. They both also happen to be lesbians. Their down-homey-ness is be part of what enables them to reach many demographics that might have shunned them were they city-folk lesbians. Their reality as lesbians is palatable to less-lesbian-receptive groups because they are talented singers in a genre favored by many in that less-receptive demographic. So much so that according to director Pooley, the Topp Twins have never received a single bit of hate mail.
It also helped that they crafted their comedy from the archetypes of New Zealand culture - such as the drag king get-up of Ken and Ken, blokes reminiscing about their rugby days at the bar of the pokie; Prue and Dilly Ramsbottom from Hawkes Bay, New Zealand’s own variation on posh upperclassness, people who Jill Caldwell and Christopher Brown call “The Remuera Tribe“; and the brilliant meta-layers of the camp of Camp Mother and Camp Leader. As British folk singer Billy Bragg notes in the documentary, too much protest music is somber. The Topp Twins were able to bring people over to human rights causes because they made people laugh. Be it Gay Rights for Kiwis in the 80‘s, anti-apartheid awareness during the infamous Springbok rugby tour in New Zealand, anti-nuclear protests in the Pacific leading to a nuclear-free New Zealand, and Maori land right claims, they made people move towards a future of greater justice by making the movement fun.
The documentary begins at a cabaret where many of the ‘patrons’ were important figures in history of the Topp Twins and the history of modern New Zealand. These figures are interviewed individually throughout the film, including the sitting prime minister at the time the documentary was made, Helen Clark, another farm girl whose rural roots won over New Zealanders. This is a documentary made for New Zealand, so just like when I listen to Kim Hill’s radio show, one less familiar with New Zealand’s 1980’s protest movements will need to make an effort to consider the significance of the events presented. (Still, particulars such as how intimidating protesting a rugby tour in New Zealand would be for a Kiwi are laid out in the documentary for the non-Kiwi.)
A yodeling comedy folk duo consisting of lesbian twins? To the uninitiated, it sounds like the premise of a mockumentary. But seeing this film amongst a Frameline audience, some of whom likely have been hip to The Topp Twins through folk festivals or women’s music festivals of the past, one realizes very quickly that The Topp Twins are all real, indeed, and thankfully so, because New Zealand is a better place because of them. It’s time for a wider swath of the U.S. to learn from them like the Kiwis have. And watching such a documentary amongst such a crowd is an experience that the DVD on the TV just can’t duplicate. In spite of this film preference, I did buy the DVD at the event, as a means to support The Topp Twins and the filmmakers, and as a totem to remember a film moment rather than the verisimilitude of one.

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